It made me reflect on the importance of being able to demonstrate that we’re experts. That expertise is, or at least should be, why we’re hired.
As we developed as an agency, we knew that the ‘artistry’ part of our output would become increasingly commoditised. It’s a shame because in many cases it’s the reason why a creative agency exists, or what the principals were trained in and what all of the team are passionate about. But it’s also a trap. Someone is always willing to do it for less. And unless you make some tough decisions about positioning, the agency can suffer death from a thousand (budget) cuts and over-servicing.
Quite early on in our existence, we made the explicit decision to invest in the strategic side of brand consultancy. We had a hunch that this was a more “businessey” thing to do and would attract the attention of other, more senior people within an organisation. It’s a step away from straightforward design, but our mantra was “we’ll get to design, but it’s not where we start”.
This decision meant it naturally took us out of the very financially led or transactional conversations that typically surround design buying. And further away from the design-led pitch competitions. These are the ones where we have to start solving the clients’ problems with pictures in a beauty contest as proof of our ability to solve problems. Nonsense. How can we possibly start to solve problems before we’re even able to understand them properly? Is this the behaviour of expert consultants? Do Bain and McKinsey offer skin-deep solutions fired randomly from the hip? Of course they don’t.
That all sounds easy and sensible. But, making these decisions and sticking to them is hard. There is such a power imbalance between a buying client and a selling agency that the prevailing mindset is that we should participate in pitches and accept a subservient role in the purchase process. The first time you have to turn your back on a potential opportunity is the hardest. All your agency schooling is telling you to embrace the challenge and pitch. There’s a contentment within an agency preparing for a pitch. It seems natural. It feels normal. Turning away from it feels like an act of sabotage. It can be hard to explain to colleagues - some of whom think we’re scared to take it on. That we’ve lost our bottle. But I think it’s one of the bravest things you can do in running your business. And over time, as it normalises as an agency position, it almost feels like the noble thing to do. There’s nothing better than responding to pitch requests with the message that we’d prefer to spend our time on the clients who are already prepared to pay for our expertise.
So - what did we do instead?
By developing and codifying our own process for working with brands we were able to demonstrate that a request to pitch is flawed. For both parties. This begins to make you stand out and break free of the competition. Rather than slavishly following the rules and not questioning the approach, you can really differentiate yourself from the others. Of course, this can go either way. In many cases, you’re seen as too difficult. The political momentum behind the chosen approach is too great and the person running the pitch doesn’t have the necessary clout to change things. So, you bow out and wish them all the best with the pitch, offering your services if they don’t get what they’re looking for. (But at least you’ve sown the seed of doubt).
We’ve walked away from lots of these ‘opportunities’ and we’re getting bolder and braver all the time. It’s in this sense that I believe we’re now beginning to reap the benefits of developing our process and consultation model. This iterative process, constantly refined over years and across jobs and clients, has honed our brand expertise into four key areas:
- Strategy & thinking
- Creative articulation
- Digital manifestation
- Brand architecture
The team has grown in confidence and credibility within client engagements (as we’re clearly positioned as the experts) which means we now have a mature perspective on the role brand and design plays in business.
This codification & process development has another benefit. It takes us higher within the client organisation. You find yourself in partnership and investment territory, rather than the more prosaic supplier/cost dynamic that exists further down the chain when negotiating design only. As one of our senior client friends once said to us “I know you can design. What else can you do?”.
Now. It’s not all cocktails and canapés. We’re still on that journey and sometimes you have to make sacrifices for the greater Good. So, that means that we still take on work that’s not necessarily core to our aspiration. It serves a purpose and keeps the wolf from the door. We know why we’re doing it, but it doesn’t change the overall direction of travel. The important thing is we know the type of firm we want to be: expert brand consultants. One where we’re sought out by clients who are prepared to pay for quality advice. Where we’re allowed to direct the process and where the engagement isn’t defined by increments of hours, days and charge out rates.
It’s a race. The learning process never stops, and we must stay ahead to be able to offer clients the expertise they can’t get elsewhere.